The Crucifixion Scene;
Central Panel of the First View,
Isenheim Altarpiece (1512–1516)
Matthias Grünewald (c. 1470-1528)
Oil on canvas.
Unterlinden Museum at Colmar,
Near the cross of Jesus stood His mother and her sister, as well as Mary the wife of Clopas and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw His mother and the disciple whom He loved standing nearby, He said to His mother, “Woman, here is your son.” Then He said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” So from that hour, this disciple took her into his home.
After this, knowing that everything had now been accomplished, and to fulfill the Scripture, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.”A jar of sour wine was sitting there. So they soaked a sponge in the wine, put it on a stalk of hyssop, and lifted it to His mouth. When Jesus had received the sour wine, He said, “It is finished.” And bowing His head, He yielded up His spirit.
It was the day of Preparation, and the next day was a High Sabbath. In order that the bodies would not remain on the cross during the Sabbath, the Jews asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies removed. So the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first man who had been crucified with Jesus, and those of the other.
But when they came to Jesus and saw that He was already dead, they did not break His legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately blood and water flowed out. The one who saw it has testified to this, and his testimony is true. He knows that he is telling the truth, so that you also may believe.
(John 19: 25-35)
REFLECTION: This lent, we were using art to go deeper into the seven great ‘I am’ statements of Jesus found in the Gospel of John. These statements reflect the identity, thus something intrinsic and permanent to his being, and by implication, how the disciple then and now can assimilate such experience. We are at the most important week of the Christian liturgy, and we thought of making a slight excursus from these seven statements before we reflect on the final one, “I am the resurrection and the life,” which reasonably we will pick up next week.
The portrayal of Jesus’ crucifixion in the Gospel of John is glorious, with little emphasis on the action being done to him, with greater emphasis on his own willful doing that can be read as symbolic of his identity as Saviour. On the cross, Jesus utters seven last words, which in this reflection, we would like to reflect on one of them: “I am thirsty” (John 19:28). This is often considered a transitory experience of physical thirst, even if various observers understood that Jesus’ thirst could be equally seen as something linked to his identity becoming a mission of saving everyone.
One image that perhaps reflects most this insatiable thirst of Jesus is a famous and intense passion depiction distinctively known as Isenheim Altarpiece. The crucified Christ occupies most of the canvas with a brutally realistic and grotesque interpretation: Jesus is seen in terrible anguish with a half-open strained mouth and in agonizing death. Covered with appalling wounds and blisters, naked except for a ragged and torn loincloth, Christ is shown pinned to the wooden torture device, seemingly weighing the crossbeam down in an excruciating and shackled way.
To the left of the cross stand the three figures who stood by Jesus during the crucifixion, the Virgin Mary, John the Apostle, and Mary Magdalen. On the right, we find John the Baptist looking at and pointing directly to Jesus, who seems lost in the tragic situation that he is experiencing. The whole scene is pitch dark except for the illumination on the figures, who stand before a ghostly and opaque background. The painting was commissioned by the monastic hospital order of Saint Anthony of Isenheim for the choir of their main Chapel. The hospital mainly treated those assailed by Ergotism (St. Anthony’s fire) which at the time was a deadly and incurable disease with symptoms similar to those experienced by Jesus on the cross.
One way of interpreting this work is the experience of humanity in its most critical form, devoid of the splendour of human propensity. However, it might be seen as equally reflects the anguish of Jesus who gave his all, or instead, he became us in the weakest form to show his utter love for us (Cf. 2 Corinthians 5:21). This theological reality was picked up among others by the contemporary saint, Mother Theresa. In a letter that she penned, adopting the words of Jesus himself, she reflects:
I thirst for you. Yes, that is the only way to even begin to describe My love for you: I THIRST FOR YOU. I thirst to love you and to be loved by you – that is how precious you are to Me. I THIRST FOR YOU. Come to Me, and I will fill your heart and heal your wounds. I will make you a new creation, and give you peace, even in all your trials. I THIRST FOR YOU. You must never doubt My mercy, My acceptance of you, My desire to forgive, My longing to bless you and live My life in you. I THIRST FOR YOU. If you feel unimportant in the eyes of the world, that matters not at all. For Me, there is no one any more important in the entire world than you. I THIRST FOR YOU. Open to me, come to Me, thirst for Me, give Me your life – and I will prove to you how important you are to My Heart.
As we enter these salient days of the paschal event, we would like to encourage you to stay and contemplate this thirst that Jesus has for you. May you find the space of intimacy with our Lord, who in his gutwrenching experience of his passion showed his utmost love poured down for your own becoming. May his identity as being reflected in thirst not solely for water, but for your being enamoured with Him, encourage you to stay in his divine love.